No one should be without a home.
Westchester County is on a mission to prevent the county’s most vulnerable families and individuals from homelessness. “The economy has picked up in Westchester in terms of how expensive it is to live here, and most people’s incomes haven’t matched that. It’s a blessing to know opportunities exist to be in a home,” says Leonard G. Townes, Commissioner of Westchester Department of Social Services (DSS). “We are doing all we can to keep our homeless numbers low,” he says. To ensure that, Westchester County has helped over 200 individuals and families in the county find leases for permanent homes through the Emergency Housing Voucher (EHV) program, made available through the American Rescue Plan Act.
“The program came out at a time when there was a challenge to our national economy. It wasn’t just a simple one- or two- year program. The benefit of the voucher is for nine years so it secures them in housing for an extremely long time which is uncommon. That makes it special,” says Towne. “We’ve had a decline in homelessness over the years, but our numbers are starting to go back up little by little.”
Westchester leads all New York State counties in using the Federal plan to prevent homelessness. “We are more than proud about that level of success. It’s always been a challenge to house people throughout Westchester County. These opportunities don’t come around too often where we get support in housing our individuals,” says Townes. “Westchester County is a very wealthy county and it’s challenging for lower earning people to find housing here. Our goal is to identify housing available, help people find housing close to where they work, and also provide them with the supports to make it possible.”
The program has specific criteria to identify those most at risk of homelessness and in need of safe, stable homes, such as individuals and families who are homeless, at-risk of homelessness, fleeing, or attempting to flee, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, or human trafficking, or were recently homeless or have a high risk of housing instability.
According to Westchester County Executive George Latimer, the county had serious concerns about the impact of Covid and the most vulnerable being able to stay in their homes when Covid arose. “By staying ahead of the curve and using all available resources to keep people from homelessness, we’re not only preventing human tragedy for those individuals and families, but we’re reducing the social and economic costs of homelessness for everyone in Westchester,” he says. “In the end, government programs are only as good as our ability to execute on them.”
The county’s success rate is attributed to diligent advanced planning by the County’s Department of Social Services and the County’s partner in the program, WESTHAB, a nonprofit agency that develops affordable and supportive housing, operates homeless shelters, and provides youth programs and employment services. “WESTHAB has done a tremendous job in helping us along with the program. When the state made us aware of EVH, it was all hands-on deck. We pulled together as a community organization and government organization to really make this a success. We want to serve the population with whatever funding and programming is released,” says Craig Wong, WESTHAB Program Administrator in Homeless Services. The County’s proactive response to processing applications places Westchester in a position to help even more people as additional federal application slots become available.
“Westchester County is really looking at making sure that affordable housing is being built throughout the state and we’re trying our best to look at all land and space opportunities to create additional housing,” says Townes. “Our team and their level of commitment and the partnerships we have are meeting the needs of the people we serve and that makes me proud. People are really helping the communities of Westchester County, but we have to zone in on more community support in developing housing.”
The work goes beyond providing homes to retaining their housing. Wong explains DSS has developed a thorough follow-up care program. “A lot of these folks have never had their own place before so there is a feeling of elation, but they also have that apprehension of how they will be able to keep their home,” he says. “We have a really cohesive team of DSS workers in place who can help them manage, whether it’s budgeting or accessing services or community organizations to help them succeed. We also have a Continuum of Care Board whose goal is to end homelessness as well as hundreds of people and dozens of agencies who have the mindset and the heart to help.”
Offering stability to families and individuals is important especially around the holidays. “Everyone wants to be home for the holidays, so it’s a great time to have this initiative come into play,” says Townes. “The holiday season is always a time when people tend to think a little bit more about other people and how they’re doing. To know that we are helping people establish a home and have their own private dwelling and that opportunities exist for people to move their lives forward is a blessing. If you can get in your first home now and celebrate the holidays, there’s nothing like that feeling.”